Monday, May 14, 2007

Broken English

The other day my wife phoned the local outpost of a large international hotel chain to ask if their staff could speak English. "Yes", came the somewhat offended reply, "it's a requirement that all our staff can speak English". Afterwards I suggested that she should have then switched to English and asked some more questions, preferably difficult ones - even if they were slightly spurious - just to test them out since they were so obviously affronted by the question.

You see, it's been my experience in Korea that there are quite a lot of people who claim to speak English, but there's a huge difference between their imagined ability and their actual capacity to hold an intelligible conversation. It may partly be the fallout from the considerable exposure that Koreans have to English in their education system - one requirement for universities is to have learnt over a thousand English words as part of the entrance exam. However, while this style of learning may help vocabulary, it doesn't necessarily help the comprehension of sentences, and certainly not speaking and therefore conversing. This can manifest itself in some odd ways - one of my wife's friends - who does not claim to have any English ability - has such an impressive vocabulary that she often knows what I've said when I've spoken a short sentence - but she won't speak English to me voluntarily or even with some arm-twisting, so to the uninitiated foreigner she might appear to have no ability at all. I don't know how many Koreans are like this so I'm very careful about what I say in front of anybody.

But what of those who do make claims about their language skills to their Korean friends? I've noticed that when I appear on the scene they often can't get out of my way fast enough - lest their ability is put to the test. For example, I went to a particular hair salon a few times and everyone told me that one of the stylists was quite good with English, but every time I went in, it felt like he was avoiding me - until the day he was assigned to me, and he cut my hair in total silence. The experience is not untypical, but whether it's due to the individual over-selling themselves, or peers doing it for them, is hard to say. What I do know is that after seven months here I've been promised meetings with a number of people who speak English, and so far my enthusiastic friend at the bank is the only Korean apart from my wife I can claim to have had a conversation with in this time.

It's not that I'm criticising. It was a hard slog learning 1,200 Japanese words and my Korean is still stuck a little above 300 after a busy week, so anyone who can speak any English here has my respect. But it does feel like there's been some false advertising in certain quarters all the same. And that's why next time a hotel staff member - or anyone else for that matter - gets shirty about the question being asked, they're going to be called on it.


Anonymous said...

I guess some people are just shy about speaking in another language. It's one thing to know English, it's another thing to have the guts to try to communicate in English if it isn't your first language.

Mike said...

I think there's a cultural difference. I don't care whether I make a fool of myself or not - I try to speak - and the bank employee is evidently the same on the Korean side. But beyond the reticence to speak, I was trying to point to something a little deeper which I perceive, rightly or wrongly. to be happening.

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